Many events had occurred in the short time since we had escaped from Sobibor. Our circumstances and situation frequently changed and we quickly learned to get used to every change. Yet for all that, who could possibly imagine that we would join a gang of robbers? And I, to whom theft seemed such a terrible deed, and who viewed a thief as some kind of monster, took part in robbery and didn't feel at all that I was doing something bad or evil; It seemed to me something so simple and even somewhat pleasurable.
Our lives in the lonely house belonging to Janka and Jula became so routine that it seemed we had been living there many years. But as Jurziek had predicted in the beginning, the two women began to complain about the danger threatening them by hiding Jews, and this in spite of the fact that their situation had improved immeasurably because of our presence. Even so, the bonds between Jurziek and Janka became stronger from day to day until it seemed that Janka would sacrifice her life for Jurziek - she really did love him - but our second couple didn't fare so well and fought nearly every day. Jula got fed up with Semen, and he was unable to fulfil her exaggerated sexual demands. Semen told her that he had read in a book that it wasn't healthy to have sexual relations too often, not more than once a week. When she heard that, Jula went wild, cursing him and making fun of him. She also suspected him of being Jewish and said he spoke with a Jewish accent and acted like a Jew. Semen, of course, acted as if insulted on hearing this and denied it all. Then one night, we all woke up to Jula's shouts and saw her sitting up in bed with a candle in one hand, holding Semen's penis in the other and shouting victoriously: You see - it's cut! He's Jewish, the bastard, he's a Jew!
We were all stupified at the weird spectacle - Semen lying next to Jula, the upper part of his body raised in the bed, leaning on his arms, his eyes downcast in shame as if caught red-handed in some act or other. In a soft voice he said to Jula:
Jula, czhestonia slovo, kola popla na peronta.(Jula, on my word of honour, a bullet took off the end). Jula burst out laughing. The bullet hit exactly the end? She couldn't stop shrieking with laughter until we all joined in with her and the crisis passed. But the following morning, they were at it again and the atmosphere in the house became tense.
We had and urgent 'council of war' and decided that Mannik should take Semen's place as lover. Mannik didn't strike me as being exactly the lover type for Jula. He was refined, choosey, tending to perfection, or the search for it and more than once, Jula had made fun of his educated Polish saying that it wasn't Polish and that he was ...just making up words. Sometimes Mannik would recite a passage from well-known Polish literature and Jula would cut him short with crude language - she showed blind resistence to anything she didn't know. One evening, during a conversation, when Mannik mentioned that Jesus was a Jew, Jula got very hurt, as if Mannik had stabbed her with a knife in the heart, and lost her temper to such an extent that she could have killed him. Mannik tried to calm her down and prove to her the truth of his words but she, saturated with anti-Semitism since birth, was injured to the depths of her soul, wailing non-stop for an hour, shouting:
How can you not be ashamed to say that our beloved Jesus was a Jew-boy!
I found it difficult to imagine how harmony could be established between these two, but Mannik took on the task with great seriousness. In the evening, when we were all sitting down together and Semen and Jula were sniping at one another, Mannik suddenly burst out in anger and complained about Semen's behaviour towards her:
For a long time, now, he raged, its been hurting me to see how you've been treating Jula, and I can't stand it any more. I've loved Jula from the first moment I saw her!
When Semen replied that what happened between he and Jula was none of Mannik's business, Mannik got up and jumped on Semen, trying to hit him. We all rushed to separate them and held on to Mannik until he cooled down a bit, while Jula sat there looking dumb-founded. She got up and sat next to Mannik wailing, and abusing Semen.
That same night, Mannik slept in Jula's bed - and Semen joined me on the floor.
From the information that was coming through, the Germans were in in a bad situation, to say the least. The Red Army stood on the banks of the Bug - a march of less than a hundred kilometres from us and we waited for the Soviet attack which we knew must come in the spring, which was coming closer with each day. Listening to the BBC from London we heard that German cities were being bombed, night after night, by hundreds of bombers and were being turned into desolate piles of rubble. Berlin was burning non-stop, and we our-selves could hear squadrons of aircraft constantly passing overhead, high up, and returning sometime later, convinced they were Russian aircraft. All the news and information was good, and into our hearts again stole the hope that we would survive and see the Germans beaten. But in spite of the hope, in spite of the reasonably good conditions that we had achieved, the danger to our lives increased from day to day.
Occasionally, by chance, a stranger came to the house and rumours began to circulate through the villages that there were Jews living in the lonely house, occupied by the two women. One day, I went outside to get water from the well - and, as usual when I went out during the day - dressed as a woman, complete with skirt and head scarf. A man suddenly appeared behind the house, close to the door, and went inside. I froze to the spot next to the well. There was no doubt that the man had seen me but had ignored the fact. I was sure that had found all my friends inside totally unprepared, but when I went in with the bucket of water, I saw to my surprise that they had all mananged to hide in time, and I stood next to the door, not knowing what I should do.
Good morning, Madam, the man said to me in a condescending tone.
Good morning,I answered in a falsetto, but the man burst out laughing and said:
You can throw your rags away. I saw that you were a man when I saw you outside!
That same moment Jurziek came out of his hiding place, followed by Mannik and Semen. After a long conversation and some vodka, the man was given a pair of shoes. He parted from us in a friendly fashion, promising by everything he held holy, not to breathe a word of our existence.
In order to counteract the rumours spreading throught the area, about us, we decided to spread one of our own. It became known that a partisan headquarters was based in the house and anyone who said a word about it was endangering his own life and that of his family. But the rumours about us spread very quickly.. Strange and different stories were heard about the house - there were those who had seen whole 'platoons' of partisans coming and going throughout the night, and around the house guards armed with machine-guns; there were those who had seen people get to close to the house and simply disappear. People became afraid to get too close, and those whose path perforce took them in the vicinity, made a wide detour, rather than tempt providence.
The rumours worked. Janka and Jula began to get afraid. The possibility that the war was moving towards its close injected into a certain disquiet into Janka's heart, who was very much in love with Jurziek. One day she said to him:
Now, you say you love me and you treat me like a queen. But when the war finishes, you'll leave me; you'll find some Jewish girl and marry her.......
Jurziek pretended to be angry and upset and went out of the house in a huff and Janka, who seemed worried, sent me to see what he was doing. Jurziek was moistening his cheeks with saliva and I went back inside and said in a sad voice: He's crying..
Janka put her head in her hands.
Dear God, what have I done? she cried I shouldn't have said that to him. Go! Bring him, she told me.
I went and returned. He won't want to come, I said, and wailing, Janka ran to Jurziek, kissed him and begged him to forgive her.
Another time she said to him that she knows he doesn't love her, that he only wanted to get through the war in her house. Jurziek was so hurt by her words, that he took a knife and began to sharpen it, shouting: I've got nothing to live for! We all jumped on him and held him tight while he struggled in his attempts to commit suicide by stabbing himself in the heart with the knife and shouting the whole time: I've got nothing to live for! I've got nothing to live for!
Janka, shocked by Jurziek's reactions, declared in a voice shaking with emotion:
If anything happens to Jurziek, I'll kill myself, as well! It's all my fault! And again she begged Jurziek to forgive her. Within minutes, they were sitting on the bed, hugging each other.
Nevertheless, the incidents continued. Semen and I began to feel ourselves a little unwanted in the house. This found expression in the distribution of food, as well. Both the women made sure that each of their men received the best, while we two, in effect, had to make do with 'remainders', and on occasion even went hungry. One day Janka said:
I'm willing to take risks for my Jurziek and if the Germans catch us, then they can kill both of us together in the bed.
So am I, said Jula, ready to take risks for my Mannik. But what do we need that Semen and Bolek, for? We should take them to the Stoloski Forest - (the nearby forest) - put a bullet in their heads, and have done with it!
Almost from the beginning we had sensed that Jula was a somewhat bad-hearted and anti-Semitic person but after we had lived together such a long time, we didn't expect to hear such words from her. Jurziek reacted imm-ediately, saying in a commanding voice:
O.K. you two guys. Get dressed and packed! we're all leaving!
The weather was very stormy outside. We had nowhere to go. But we certainly had to take a firm stand - and Jurziek was playing for high stakes. We each began to dress. Jurziek crammed all sorts of belongings into a sack. Janka began to argue with Jula: Why do you talk such rubbish? She shouted at her, and Jula went on the defensive:
What did I do? I wasn't really serious; I just said it like that. You all know that I love Bolek, he's a good lad.
Jurziek decided to attack: We've got plenty of places where we can stay, he said. Only a few days ago a farmer I know suggested that we go and hide at his place and he's got everything we need. And it's a much better place than this, let me tell you. But we're here because I love Janka and Mannik loves Jula. But if Jula's going to say things like that about my best friends, then its clear we can't stay here.....
After a long controversy and discussion - and after Jula had asked our pardon and kissed me, the two of us were persuaded to remain in their house.
While I was still suffering agonies from my foot, the little toe of which was like a rotten fruit, another plague came to trouble me - scabies. It started with an itching between the fingers, which were all affected, and then spread all over the body, from head to toe. Sometimes I felt I was on the verge of going mad from the irritation. During the night I became a sort of 'scratching machine'; I did nothing but tear at myself, non-stop, all night long. My entire body became covered in pustules, which didn't take long to appear on my face and head. I had a fright when I looked at myself in the mirror. I thought that I would never again have a smooth, clear skin. Others who saw me told me the same thing.
One evening Jurziek arranged for us to eat at Karpyuck's. Jurziek made sure that, now and again, we went to visit people that he knew, so that the women could see that we weren't entirely dependant upon them, and also to keep on good terms with the farmers in case it should become necessary. As usual, when Jurziek ordered a meal at our expense, the food was excellent and there was plenty of vodka.
While we were eating, a conversation developed around the subject of the war which, according to our own opinion, was going to end in the near future. We were all a little drunk and high-spirited. Karpyuck, who was quite drunk, suddenly said to Jurziek:
That lad there, Bolek, he's a good boy, so it seems, but he's not going to live. He's finished!
All of them turned and looked at me at once, and Jurziek said:
Mr Karpyuck, what on earth are you talking about? Bolek's fine, he's going to live!
Karpyuck was adamant. Jurziek, my love, he said like one who knows that reality can't be changed, I'm willing to bet what ever you like, that lad won't live more than a fortnight. He looked at me like someone examining goods for sale, and when Jurziek again tried to disagree with him said:
I'd like Bolek to live, as well. He's a nice young lad. But I'm willing to bet my own life that he'll die in the next few days. There's nothing we can do about it. Look at him, how he looks - his face, his frost-bitten foot.....
I sat at the same table as they, aghast, listening to the argument and discussion going on between Jurziek and Karpyuck around the question as to whether I was going to live or die, but for some reason, perhaps because of the amount of vodka I'd drunk, I wasn't worried, as if the argument was about someone else entirely.
Winter neared its end. The snow-covered fields began to blacken and turn into oceans of mud. The snow which still fell was now mixed with rain and disappeared, melting as it settled. From time to time, the sun peeped between the clouds and warmed the earth slightly. Janka, who was in the last month of her pregnancy, was worried about who was going to help her with the birth and Jurziek calmed her, telling he that when the time came, we'd call a midwife, but the chances of finding one at the exact time that we needed her were pretty remote. We, too were a little worried about the approaching birth.
Late one evening, Janka started having contractions and asked for the midwife. It was impossible; who was going to walk to the villages at that time of night and start looking for midwives? And which of us would go? The search was likely to last a long time and by the time she arrived it would all be over.
Janka was afraid and miserable and we commiserated with her but didn't know what we could do to help her. We thought that Jula would be able to do something, but she refused saying she didn't know what to do. Then Jurziek decided that he was going to be the 'midwife'. He asked us to leave the room - and start praying that everything would be alright - and told Jula to prepare some hot water, a clean sheet and to stand by ready to help, if need be. He took his clothes off, washed his hands well, put on Janka's nightdress as a medical gown of sorts, and got to work. We, standing outside, heard all that was going on behind the door, every whisper came to our ears. We heard Janka's shouts until they suddenly stopped, and then Jurziek's shout:
Very good! Janka, you've got a son!
For a long time Jurziek continued to work on the mother - he tied and cut the cord, washed the infant - and then came out to us with a beaming face, saying:
Mazal Tov! we've got a bastard!
For a long time we hadn't seen Pan Palka and Bronek, so much so that we'd forgotten they even existed. We hoped we'd never see them again, either. Neither had we seen Stasiek for some time. And then, one evening, when we were already lying down for the night, we heard the sound of voices outside calling to Janka and Jula to open the door. Palka, Bronek - the 'fingerless-one' - and Stasiek had come on a surprise visit, but there was no need for Stasiek to introduce his friends; Bronek was instantly identifiable from his fingerless right hand. He was about twenty-something, short, with a smiling face. Pan Palka seemed to be over forty years-of-age, of medium height, round-bodied and with a bit of a tummy bulging out. He was dressed in a short leather coat and excellent boots.In addition to the rifle over his shoulder, he was carrying a pistol under his coat. His expression was serious and a little arrogant. He gave the impression of being authoritative without appeal - Bronek and Stasiek seemed something like errand-boys in comparison.
The suddenness of the threesome's appearance and their friendly behaviour made us forget, for the moment, the danger wafting around our heads - the armed robbers could murder us in an instant - but the quick, understanding glances we gave each other were enough to send us sitting scattered around the room and not together. The women laid the table and we all drank a toast to the health of Janka's baby, a toast to the honour of our 'gang' and a toast to our commander Palka. Jurziek became friendly very quickly with Palka, and the two sat in a corner of the room and agreed on a number of 'operations' to take place in the coming days..
Then Palka said, pointing at me: That little child we won't take.
Again I was a child! When will I be big enough to have them stop thinking of me as a child?
Stasiek said: That 'child' was with us on our last job and he was perfectly alright.
I was pleased to hear Stasiek's compliment but Palka cut into Stasiek's words and said: Don't stick your nose into things that don't concern you, and turning to me said: Don't worry, I'll yet make a man of you!
After the meal and all the drinks, Palka stood up, approached Janka and told her to go with him. Embarrassed,Janka explained to him quietly that only a week previously she'd given birth. Palka said nothing but just looked at her - she got up and went into the alcove with him.
After the three of them had taken themselves off, Janka burst out crying and said:
If I'd refused to go with him he would have killed me.
A few days after this meeting, the expanded gang, now under the command of Palka, went out at least once a week on a robbery, sometimes twice. The robberies were carried out over a wide area, after information had been collected about potential targets for a long time. In the beginning, I sat at home, ashamed and embarrassed, and waited for the return of my friends late at night with their plunder. Although it is true that I wasn't overjoyed with the idea of going out on robberies, and my health wasn't all it could be either - my foot was still a problem, it was difficult to walk and my scabies was at the peak of its virulence - but still, I wanted to be a full partner with my friends in everything, good or bad, and not to be like a child, that everyone has to do his work for him. So, I pestered Jurziek to convince Palka to let me join them until, at last, Palka gave in.
From the very first robbery under the direction of Palka, I could clearly sense the difference in quality between his leadership and that of Stasiek. Palka was - one could sense - a man of much experience and with the leadership qualities for conducting successful operations. From the moment we went out no one felt the need to say a word. Palka led us, calmly and confidently.
When we reached the objective, he instructed each of us what to do, clearly and distinctly, and everything was done quickly. Palka checked all the different possibilities for a break-in and control of the house and after we were all in position guarding the whole house, he and Jurziek went to the door, knocked and asked them to open. When the demand went unanswered he gave a signal to Bronek and Stasiek and they smashed a window with the butts of their rifles and jumped in, opened the door from inside, and hit anyone they met inside or interferred with them. Afterwards, we gathered all the occupants together in one corner and Bronek, together with Jurziek went through the whole house, checking all the rooms to make sure that there was no one hiding anywhere, then returned and reported to Palka that the house was 'clean'.
I looked at the family - husband, wife, four children of different ages, and one old man, all crammed together in one corner, shaking with fear - and a picture flashed across my mind: the first days of the war. Germans enter our house to rob us. We stand in the corner of the room - my mother, my sister, my little brother Yakeli'eh and myself - crammed together; a German in a grey uniform, a pistol pointing at us, guarding us and me shaking with fear.....
Tears choked me and I didn't know why - was it because of the picture itself that flashed into my mind, or was it because of what was happening here in front of me at this instant? Perhaps both of them together?
The theft continued. The trap-door to the cellar, set into the floor of the room, was removed and the family lowered down, one by one. Bronek removed a gold ring from the woman's finger. She burst out sobbing but said nothing and went down into the cellar. Palka took the farmer to one side, spoke to him quietly and suddenly slapped him twice. The farmer led him to another room and both of them returned with a pile of skins, then Palka put the farmer into the cellar as well.
Everything happened within the space of a minute or two, in an exemplary manner. Everything worked like a smooth-running, well-oiled machine. Stasiek harnessed the farmer's horse to a cart and brought it up to the door of the house, while we roamed at will throughout the house and yard taking whatever was of value with no one to interfere with us - clothes, boots, tanned skins, sides of bacon, a sack of flour, a few chickens that we managed to catch - we loaded it all on the cart and took ourselves off as we had come - quietly. The farmer and his family, we left in the cellar. We moved heavy furniture onto the trap door. Who knows when the neighbours will discover what happened, come to investigate, and let the captives out of the cellar?
I didn't have a specific job. All during the robbery, I was in the house, wandering around like a sleepwalker. Although I had already taken part in a robbery, this was the first time I had actually met face-to-face, living victims of a robbery and it seemed to me that my place was more with the robbed than with the robbers.
On the way back, we stopped and Palka asked us what we would like to take from the spoils. He knew, of course, that we had no real need of the plunder so we satisfied ourselves presents for Janka and Jula, and a few sides of bacon. We parted from our accomplices in a friendly fashion and went home.
Our gang perpetrated several robberies, one after the other, on the farmers in the area. On market days, we used to set an ambush on the road through the forest, and when a wagon came through on the way back from market we would attack it, force the people off and take the wagon and all it contained.
One robbery, which especially shocked me, was at the home of one of the richest farmers in the area, two days before his daughter's wedding. The place was far away and we got there very late at night, although the family was still up and about. Lights and the voices of people talking came from the windows. The front door was unlocked and we broke into the house easily. It was warm inside the house and the smell of fresh baking that had only that moment been brought from the oven, went up my nostrils. The whole family was awake and on our breaking in, their flushed faces turned suddenly pale. As usual, Palka very quickly took control of the situation. After they had received a few random slaps, here and there, the whole family was put in the cellar. Bronek and Stasiek were in a good mood. Bronek grabbed the bride-to-be to him and tried to kiss her. She resisted and got a slapped face for her trouble. The groom tried to defend her but was hit by Stasiek and thrown into the cellar. Pan Palka stood and looked like a good father watching his children getting up to mischief. Bronek dragged the girl to a corner of the room where there was a bed and threw her down on it. The girl continued to resist, shouting: Take everything you want, just leave me alone! But Bronek again hit her and then raped her. After he had finished along came Stasiek who also raped her.
Sometimes I found a kind of justification for the robberies that we carried out - why should only we, the Jews, suffer? Let the Gentiles also taste the pain of anguish. I saw in our doings a sort of vengeance on the 'Polaks' who had helped in the destruction of the Jews, but there was no way in which I could justify the cruelty of Bronek and Stasiek, or the suffering of the girl. In the camp, when the most terrible things were happening before my eyes, I could find an escape by working at a mad pace; in that way I could avoid relating to what was going on around me. Now, also, I began to run back and forth like a madman, taking things out of the house, escaping from the reality of what was going on.
We emptied the house of everyhting that had been prepared for the wedding and loaded crates of vodka, barrels of smoked meat, all sorts of baked confections and sweets and cleared off with a wagon-full. For a long time I could hear the cries and wailing of the girl and see before me the picture of Bronek with his trousers down.
We returned laden down with booty, but in my heart was a heavy feeling. We didn't exchange a single word on the way home. We were clearly all ashamed of ourselves. We had seen our partners in a robbery performing the most cruel of acts - and we were their accomplices in their terrible deeds. How quickly we had changed sides, from the robbed to the robbers.
But there was no way that we could put and end to the partnership before the summer and the possibility of living out in the forests became a reality again. At the same time, we were living, at the moment, in comfort, we had passed a difficult winter safely, in a warm home, with sufficient food. And Palka, Bronek and Stasiek related to us as equals - we never once heard from their mouths the word 'Jew'.
The following evening, the three of them came round to the house and a spontaneous party began, which went on all night. The vodka was excellent, not like the farmers' home-made Samogonka vodka, that we'd got used to. This time we had vodka which had been freed of its cheap smell, and which was even stronger. We drank a lot and we all got drunk, and Palka started singing:
When in hiding, the time runs away,
Each moment to the full you enjoy,
A wedding today, and tomorrow we die,
When the head's been cut off,
Lay the axe down to rest....
Oh most praised prince,
Not one hair from your head will fall.
Death awaits you any minute -
Your end will be bad and bitter.......
To the Ball at the palace came the brave soldier-heroes
And dew-fresh ladies of grace.
Then suddenly - shots, - our swords drawn on high.
The heroes' weapons are thrown at our feet,
And all their money as well.
The women give up their jewellery and gold.
When we finish our work at the palace,
I and my gang to the forest make haste.
Before me appears a young maiden,
In her hand she brings a cool drink.
Oh, bring me your jug, my fair maiden,
And I'll give you gold and much love....
Palka sang the song with great pride and seemed very moved by it. Possibly the words reminded him of something. Even the manly Palka, hardened robber, was exposed as the owner of feelings. We learned the song very quickly and sang it time after time, drinking vodka, until the words no longer came clearly from our mouths and our singing turned to humming.
Spring arrived. The sun dried the vast expanses of mud and turned them to fields of green, carpeted in wild yellow flowers. In the mornings we awoke to the song of birds making merry above the house. But the house, the dwelling place which, throughout all the days of winter warmed us and protected us from the bitter cold - suddenly became a prison from which we couldn't escape. We looked through the window, yearning to go outside, to wander in the fields, to warm ourselves in the sun, but we had to be so careful not to be discovered. Not one of us dared to stick his nose out. Only the knowledge that we were no longer dependant on the house, and that we could again live outside, in the forests, lightened our hearts.
The spring brought with it good news, as well. Many people were coming and saying that the Russians, now standing on the east bank of the River Bug, will open a spring offensive and if so, the day of our liberation was nearing fast. The chances of remaining alive were getting better and better but still retained something of a dream-like quality, and no one dared to speak aloud of it for fear of tempting the devil. Together with increasing hope came, however, increasing danger. The Germans concentrated massive forces to oppose and stop the threatened Russian advance, and camped all over. German soldiers were wandering around in all the villages and could discover us at any moment - many of them in the area already knew something of the house and our staying there became more and more dangerous as the days went by.
The state of my health improved a lot. By some miracle, the spread of necrosis in my foot stopped and receded, the wounds healed. Jurziek obtained large quantities of cream for the scabies - its nickname was 'grey cream'. The cream stank of sulphur and I rubbed it all over my body, from head to foot. It burned and hurt but I suffered in silence. In the evnings, I bathed in the stream which flowed close to the house. Eventually, the sores dried up and the scabs which formed over them gradually shrank and came off.
One day Bronek appeared and asked Jurziek to accompany him to a party he'd been invited to. Jurziek told us that he had a bad feeling about the whole thing, but that he must go - it was impossible to refuse anything that Bronek said and in any case he's always saying that Jurziek was his best friend, so how could he refuse? Jurziek returned at night and told us that when they got to the party they were welcomed royally and immediately given drinks but the behaviour of the host seemed strange, for all that. Jurziek noticed that they were waiting for other guests ..and, he said, my heart told me something was going to happen. I warned Bronek and we decided to get out. Those present tried to block our path, but under the threat of Bronek's rifle and the knife I drew and held in my hand, we managed to get out.
Some time later it transpired that several members of the Polish partisan movement the 'Krajowa Army' - a right wing organization which operated against both the Germans and the Russians, and in certain instances against Jews whom they found in the forests - one of whose units was operating in the vicinity, had passed a death sentence on Bronek, and that within a few days of the party they managed to trap him. They held a short 'Courts-Martial', and hanged him on a tree on one of the main roads - but not before they had put out his eyes and hung a sign on him stating that he was a traitor to the homeland.
When we heard about the death of Bronek we fled to the forest. We were scared that his killers, before he was hanged, had managed to extract from him information concerning all of us.
Only when we were back in the forest were we able to appreciate fully the favours that living in the house had bestowed upon us throughout the long winter. The nights were still cold. Only the vodka kept us warm and put us to sleep. But even during the day it was hard to live in the forest. We were no longer used to the primitive life, and at the same time I liked city life; I felt freer there than in any other place.
In the evening we went to visit our friend Karpyuck, and when he saw me he crossed himself and said:
The lad's alive! It's a miracle! It's a miracle!
And, truly, the lad whom he was so sure would not survive another fortnight, now stood before him, alive and well, silky-skinned after the scabies. Once again we were sitting down to a sumptuous meal, accompanied by an appropriate quantity of drinks, all of us wrapped in optimism. The debate round the table centred only on the length of time we estimated the Russians would need to capture the area of Chelm, the area where we were. From Karpyuck's knowledge, he was prepared to bet it wasn't going to be more than a month.
At the end of our first week in the forest, we went to visit Janka and Jula. . Apparently, everything was quiet in the vicinity; nothing had happened and no one had come to bother them. The two women were indeed very attached to us and their pleasure at our coming was clearly genuine and deep. They begged of us to stay with them and we eventually agreed to their request.
Two days passed - into the house burst Stasiek and told us, with tears in his eyes, that Pan Palka had been killed. After we had given him a glass of vodka, he calmed down a bit and told us that he had arranged to meet Palka, who was supposed to be staying at the house of one of his mistresses, but when he got to the lady's village, they told him that at dawn, many policemen had come from surrounding villages, in a combined force, surrounded the house in which he was known to be staying and called upon him to surrender and come out with his hands up. Palka opened fire on the police. For over an hour he held them at bay and the gun-battle went on between them. Then at a certain point Palka jumped from a rear window in an attempt to make a run for it but the house was closely surrounded from every angle. As he was running, he was shot, injured and fell to the ground. He continued fighting while lying there, until his last bullet but one had gone - the last he saved for himself. He shot himself in the head and died on the spot. There were four dead policemen.
It was later told that one of his mistresses had informed on him out of jealousy, when he deserted her.
We were struck dumb. Palka killed! Only a week ago Bronek had been lost to us! Stasiek was very depressed and miserable. Bronek and Palka were the only two friends he had on earth. He was in conflict with the whole population of his village - they all hated him - and now he had no place go, he wandered from village to village, arguing and fighting with everyone to no purpose.
As it became increasingly clear that the war was drawing to a close, the struggle became more bitter between the Poles and the Ukrainians in the surrounding villages. Every night the sky turned red from the fires which were set, first by the Poles in this village and then by the Ukrainians in that one, in retaliation. We would stand from watching from afar, trying to identify which village was burning tonight. There was virtually no incident of arson in any village, or the extinguishing of a fire in another, in which Stasiek was not involved in some way or another - he either helped to start it or helped to extinguish it - until eventually, one night, the Ukrainians caught him and threw him alive into a burning house. He was burnt to death and was no more! And no one was in the least concerned. We received the news of his death as if it were something that had been preordained, and from which there was no escape. After Palka and Bronek had been killed, Stasiek had become superfluous in the world, and we, who for a long time had yearned to be free from the clutches of the three bandits had become rid of them all within one month as if by a miracle. Our feelings towards them were mixed. They acted towards us with fairness and a respect which they did not in any way accord to any other respectable people. We even made friends with them, but we were deeply troubled by their merciless cruelty - a man's life to them was as valuable, in their eyes, as, perhaps, the life of a fly or an ant. We were more than satisfied that, at last, an end had come to our enforced partnership with the robbers.
After the death of our three robber-friends, we knew a period of quiet, although it was clear to us that it wouldn't last for ever. The summer brought people out into the open - to work in the fields, and we could see people making their way not far from our house, working in the fields not far from us and more than once I had the feeling that they were throwing many glances our way. We often saw people who were walking in the direction of our house and we tried very hard to evaluate their attentions and intentions, while they were still far away - were they men or women; were they armed or not - but at the very moment we were getting ready to hide from them, they would change their direction and move further away from us. To the already existing tension, Jurziek added not a little with his many troublesome dreams, after which he would warn us of troubles which were materializing and coming closer. One morning, he woke up and told us he'd had a most terrible dream and stated that without doubt today ..something would happen. For the whole of the day, we didn't remove our eyes from what was going on outside, but nothing happened and, of course, we made fun of him and his dreams. Towards evening, when we sat down to eat, there was a sudden explosion, so powerful that we thought the house was going to collapse round our heads. Pieces of the walls and ceiling fell on the table and floor. The door, which had been locked and bolted, flew open from the blast. I was certain that the Germans had thrown a grenade or bomb into the house. Everyone sought shelter, and without thinking, I crawled into the oven and somehow crammed myself in. After a few minutes, when there was no further disturbance and everything was quiet again, I heard Janka calling us to come out. Nothing's happened, she said.
I tried to extricate myself from the oven but was so jammed in that I couldn't move. I heard someone asking: Where's Bolek? and I shouted: I'm here, in the oven and I can't get out! They got hold of one of my legs and slowly pulled me out. Once I was out we started laughing so much that, in spasms, it didn't cease until quite late in the evening. I was completely black from the soot in the oven and no one could fathom out how I had managed to actually get into the oven.
We could have left the house and gone back to living in the forest - we even told each other that the time had come to do so - because it was quite dangerous staying where we were, in the open, but we kept putting it off from day-to-day. Not only had we become so used to the warmth and comfort of the house, but the two women were quite insistent on our staying with them. We had all got used to one another and felt good together. Everyone had prepared for himself a hiding place in the little house - behind the oven, in the attic. I had found a loose floor-board, next to Jula's bed. I raised it and cleared away the earth from underneath until I had sufficient place to lie down and hide myself.
German soldiers from the various units camped round about, wandered around the villages seeking eggs, butter, chickens and other supplies, and they didn't fail to visit our place, either. Every time they came near enough to cause us misgivings, we would hide. They would enter, ask about food supplies discover that there was nothing to be had in this place - and clear off.
One day, two German soldiers came into the house and began to make love to Janka and Jula. One of the Germans sat with Jula on the bed - and dust and sand rained down on me through the cracks in the floor-boards....
I couldn't move, but I felt a sneeze coming on and my whole body began to itch, as well. I managed somehow to hang on until they had both gone. On another occasion we were surprised by two German soldiers, we saw them too late to hide, when they peeped through the window, and there was no point in hiding. Jurziek ordered us to spread out to the corners of the room, while he, himself got hold of an axe and sat near the door. We had no idea whether the two had chanced into the vicinity casually and innocently, or whether they had come to take us. What was clear, was that if they had come for us, then we would attack them and kill them. The two Germans knocked on the door. Janka opened the door and they stood there, their rifles slung on their backs. They looked at us and we at them. They paled, as if they had read our intentions on our faces, then one of them asked if we had any eggs or butter to sell. Jurziek replied that we had nothing and they took themselves off with rapid steps..
It was the first time I had ever seen German soldiers with a look of fear on their faces.
It was clear, nonetheless, that the visit could not pass without some kind of a reaction. The two soldiers couldn't help but notice that we were neither farmers, nor sons of farmers; our unexpected appearance was sufficient, apparently, to startle them at the time, but, without a doubt, it wouldn't take them long to report their discovery. We didn't know how much time we had, but it was certain that we had to leave that place - and quickly. We told Janka and Jula that they, too, had to leave the house for a time, and we parted from them in the hope that we would soon return and meet them again. They took their children and went to Janka's mother, who lived about ten-kilometres away. Without waiting for dark, we left the house at noon and walked through the fields, avoiding villages and farmers working in the fields, until we arrived at the nearest forest - this time with a definite feeling that we would not be returning to our house of refuge.
At last the Russians opened their offensive along the entire front. They crossed the Bug and the Germans, who couldn't stop the advance, redeployed, time-after-time, along new lines of defence. At night we heard, in the far distance, incessant dull thuds, that sounded like rocks rolling down a mountain-side or thunder announcing the approach of a storm. With bated breath we were all ears to these sounds, which were like the voice of heaven calling to us and saying: 'Look we're coming - and bringing your freedom!'
I don't know if we would still have been capable of living in the forest, if it had not been for the knowledge that the day of our liberation was at hand. To build another bunker didn't occcur to us. Each day we concerned ourselves only with the problem of getting through the day and the night. At night, we would visit one of the farmers whom we knew, and they would welcome us, each time, with happier and happier faces, because the danger from the Germans was getting less and less with each passing day.. We, too, became somewhat less cautious and more than once dared to walk from place- to-place during daylight hours, just like normal, free people, at a time when, in fact, the danger from the Germans was perhaps even greater - there were many Germans in the area and because of the increased activities of the partisans, they were taking more and more stringent steps to search for suspects. For several days running, we had heard shots and explosions, and we were told that the Germans had launched a big operation against a large unit of partisans in one of the forests.
One evening, we went to visit Janka and Jula. We supposed, in fact, that we would find the house abandoned, but to our surprise and pleasure we did indeed find them there and the reunion was exciting. They told us that the day following our departure, the Germans came, broke into the house and in their search, turned the whole place upside down. The girls returned again after about a week and now insisted again that we stay with them. This time we dared not agree with them but we promised to come to visit them occasionally.
One day, we were awakened by the sound of vehicles and the voices of people speaking German from close-by. Between the tees and bushes, we could see German soldiers moving around the forest and preparing to make an encampment. We retreated rapidly into the depths of the forest but even there we felt insecure. The Germans were likely to get there as well. We sensed the nearness of the liberation; we supposed that within a day or two, there would be no German soldiers in our vicinity and yet just at this time, with the end so close, we could find no place to hide. The Germans were everywhere, especially in the forests where it was difficult to spot them them from the air and where they were also protected from the strengthening sushine. Many of them visited the farmhouses. Luckily, the crops in the fields reached a height of a half-metre, or more and at night we would steal into the centre of one of the large fields, straightening the wheat we had trodden down as we went, so as not to leave too conspicuous a trail behind us, and there we lay down. The forest was a paradise compared to the wheat fields since after dawn in the fields, we were compelled to lie down the whole time without raising our heads for fear of being seen. The sun beat down upon us mercilessly and myriads of insects, strange and different, had a field day and left us not a moment's peace. In the beginning we were startled by every rabbit or other animal that scampered by, but the greatest fear by far was from people, who, now and again, passed close by us - we could hear their swishing passage through the wheat, their converstion. Sometimes it was children who had simply gone out for a walk or for some other form of youthful pleasure - but whatever the cause, we knew that if we were discovered - it would be the end. In the field, unlike the forest, there was nowhere to run and attempt to hide. In those moments of danger there was nothing to do except flatten ourselves to the ground, hold our breath and wait for the voices to fade away into the distance...
In the evenings swarms of mosquitoes would gather over our heads with their incessant, high-pitched 'zinging' and all attempts to send them packing were in vain. There were days when we stayed without water. The sun dried us up and we suffered agonizingly from thirst. One day, when we were badly attacked by thirst, I prayed for rain and in the middle of the day, out of a clear blue sky, a cloud suddenly appeared, spread itself from horizon to horizon and brought with it a cooling wind. It was as if a miracle had occurred - God had heard my prayer and large drops of water fell on my upturned face. I quickly took a cup and a tin-can out of my pack and placed them on the ground to catch the water. I lay down on my back with my mouth wide open to catch the gift of heaven. The drops of water became more frequent, until my face was completely wet and I could lick the water from around my mouth. The drops soon became a downpour, accompanied by thunder and lightning and I drank to satiation. But the blessed rain that I had prayed for, turned into a curse, as if trying to avenge itself on me for having troubled it by praying for it to come. We all got drenched through, the ground turned to mud and we had no choice but to simply lie there. Moreover, the wind and the rain flattened the wheat and we were in danger of immediate discovery, obsevable to all who chanced by.
The day dragged on endlessly; the rain gave no sign of stopping and Jurziek said it could go on for three days. And that's exactly what happened. At nightfall we stood up with difficulty. Our drenched clothes, coated with mud, were very heavy. We looked for a farmer who would let us in to dry our clothes, but were unable to persuade anyone to help us. The following day, we continued to lie in the muddy field - and the rain continued....Again I prayed - this time for the sun to break through to dry us and warm us, and - it happened! The rain stopped, the clouds disappeared, the sun peeped through from behind intermittent clouds and the body shivered in the reviving warmth. I lay flat on my back enjoying the caress of the sun. Steam arose from our clothes and we stripped off, layer by layer until we were all as naked as the day we were born, protected from prying eyes by the wheat standing around us like a protective wall.
A month previously it had seemed that the war in our area would come to an end within a few days but the end was dragging on interminably, although the front was indeed coming closer and closer. Again and again I was given over to despair, my heart telling me that there was no way in which we could survive until the Russians actually conquer the area. The crops in the fields were already ripening, harvesting had already begun - where would we hide after the harvest? In bare stubbly fields?
Jurziek used to find out each evening which fields were due to be harvested the following day but even so we could never be quite sure that the field we had chosen would, in fact, be left alone. One way or the other, day by day the number of fields left to us to use as cover gradually diminished and we became like the field-mice themselves, running for cover at the last moment, one slice ahead of the reaper's blade.
One night we really felt that the front was getting closer. Cannon-fire could be clearly heard and the flashes of the explosions seen, reflected in the dark sky. The heavens would become suddenly red and from a distance flashes and towers of thick smoke could be seen billowing up. The farmers said that the Germans had blown up their fuel dumps before retreating to prevent them falling into Russian hands. As if hypnotized, we watched the wonderful sight of the flames and I sketched, in my imagination the picture of the German army being blown to smithereens.
That same evening, we knocked on Karpyuck's door, where we were gladly welcomed. Our host told us that the Germans who had been camping in the vicinity, had moved out and were retreating westwards. From pure joy we drank ourselves almost into a stupor. Karpyuck offered to put us up for the night, but we preferred to sleep in the fields, close-by. We felt, with all our souls that now, at any moment, the world would overturn and we would be free. And I, Bereleh, stood before the realization of that ambition which had never left me for a moment - I was going to remain alive, to survive, be a free man; I was going to see the downfall and destruction of the Germans.
Hand-in-hand with the intense joy which now engulfed me I became afraid to think of what would come after the liberation. Since I had been smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto I had cherished one dream, and one dream only - to return home and tell my mother of all my experiences, to my sister and my brothers. As the weeks lengthened into months and the months into years, the dream ceased to become realistic and turned into a somewhat shattered illusion, which, in spite of everything, granted me, now and again, a moment or two of pleasure before falling asleep. All the time I knew that sooner or later, I was going to die in this war; now, when it became clear that I would survive - would there be anyone to tell?
I could see the sadness on the faces of Jurziek, Mannik and Semen. They, like me, suffered appalling anxiety that they, too, were the sole survivors of their families.
During the day the sounds of the artillery barrage crept closer and closer and the retreat of the Germans turned into a rout. Convoys of the German army moved rearwards without making any effort to use normal roads, so much so that remaining in the fields and possibly in their direct path, became a definite danger. Because of this we went and stayed with Karpyuck. That evening, we saw through the window, the increased flow of retreating German traffic - some on wagons, some on foot. They walked quietly, like a convoy of gypsies rather than the renowned German army, and we sat at ease in Karpyuck's, drinking vodka not knowing, in truth, how to celebrate adequately what was happening. We wanted to be happy, to take infinite pleasure in what was happening, but something deep inside stopped us. Only the vodka succeeded in extricating us from our complicated and complex feelings by blurring and befogging them.
We drank and we laughed. The fear that had been a part of our lives for these interminable years had been removed - in spite of the fact that the retreating Germans were passing close to the house in which we sat and could come in at any instant, catch us and kill us at the very moment of our liberation.. Suddenly Mannik got up and went outside - we supposed for some 'natural' reason but when he failed to return, Jurziek and I went out to see what had happened to him. We were astounded to see him standing next to a wagon on which sat a German soldier. Mannik was holding the reins of the horse and talking with the German, saying:
Deutschland Kaput! - (Germany is finished!) - Give me your horses, Mannik said to the soldier, and he, with his rifle slung on his shoulder and grenades hung about his webbing, turned to his comrade, shouting:
Hans Sie wollen die Pferde stollen! - Hans! They want to steal the horses!
It was at that moment that we got hold of Mannik and dragged him backwards with all our strength. He, drunk, became very angry with us because, he said, he could have taken the horses from the Germans and we had stopped him.
We were woken up in the morning by the sound of explosions which shook the whole house. We looked out. Not a German to be seen. We carefully left the house to have a look round, but there was not a living soul to be seen, even though the day was warm and summery with clear blue skies. The Karpyuck family was hiding in a potato field not far from the house, and we stood there, in the open field as if we owned the place, trying to evaluate the state of the battle. We were between the two forces. Shells were passing over our heads in both directions, but the main battle was taking place on a hill to one side. There, we could see shells exploding to the background rattle of machine-gun fire. A few shells landed not too far away from us and then one fell very close. The blast shook us and earth and small stones showered us. Only then did we fully appreciate our danger. What was the point in dying such a stupid, incidental death only minutes before liberation? We jumped quickly into the crater of one of the shells and from there we saw tens, perhaps hundreds of shells flying overhead, flaming like torches, to land on the hill, which was immediately smothered in smoke and flames. These were 'Katyusha' rockets. Silence reigned. At first we could see nothing but suddenly we heard the sound of horses hooves. Three Russian cavalrymen were galloping towards us and only with difficulty managed to rein in their horses and stop next to us. Their faces were the faces of youths but their expressions serious. Their uniforms were rather poor, but across their chests they carried machine-guns. We wanted to fall upon them with hugs and kisses but they only asked us if there were any Germans in the area and continued to gallop forwards. Instead of falling on the necks of the Russians, we fell on each other's and broke into uncontrollable sobbing. We were free!
The Soviet army passed by us in a hurry, pursuing the retreating Germans. The Russian soldiers resembled not at all the men of the German army, whom we saw entering Lodz, in their smart uniforms well-equipped from head to toe. The Russians were dressed poorly and their equipment seemed rather miserable; we saw soldiers whose rifles had no leather slings but string or cord. But that army fought and conquered the German army. We greeted the Russian soldiers but they payed us no attention. Only a very few returned our greetings.
We were free, but we didn't know what to do. We wandered the roads in full daylight, aimlessly, but tasting the wonderful feeling of being liberated and being seen by all without the slightest fear. A farmer and his family came walking towards us and as they reached us we greeted each other as if it were the most natural thing in the world, but for us it was a new experience, although it seemed to me that they looked at us with something like fear in their eyes. The day moved towards evening and we returned to Karpyuck's house. Semen said that he had to hurry and rejoin the Soviet army, to continue fighting the Germans. When we told him not to be in such a hurry, that we should stay together for a while and rejoice in our salvation, he replied that he was a Russian soldier and his place was in the army. Jurziek and Mannik had two uncles who had been hiding out with farmers and they intended to go and visit them on the morrow, to see how they were. Tired from a night without sleep and a long day replete with emotionally exciting events, we had an evening meal, drank vodka and lay down to sleep in the barn.
I woke up late in the morning. No one had interferred with my slumbers. Jurziek and Mannik had gone to their uncles. Semen was not in sight - apparently he had gone to clarify his position regarding his reenlistment. When I left the barn, I saw a Russian sentry, armed with an automatic rifle, stationed in ront of the door to the farm-house. When I went inside, it became clear to me that the house had been turned into a clinic. The smell of disinfectant and various medicines filled the air. A woman, with a white coat over her uniform - a doctor apparently - was treating an officer who was seated on a chair. His upper body was swathed in bandages and the doctor was engaged in dressing his hand. The officer must have been quite senior: every now and then, officers entered, saluted and stood to attention while they reported to him.
Karpyuck came in and said to the officer:
You see this lad, here? He's a Jew who escaped from Sobibor extermination camp and has been hiding here.
The officer threw me a glance and continued to sit stony-faced. The doctor, too, looked long and softly at me, until I began to feel embarrassed. I was glad to be in the room, close to the Russian soldiers - and I couldn't take my eyes off the doctor. She was about thirty-something, full-bodied, but not fat, with the face of an angel or a Greek statue - carved, pink, smooth as silk and unmarked. Her hair was brown and caught up at the back; her eyes were big and black. Her clothes were spotless and immaculately ironed and her white coat emphasized her beauty. By chance, the injured officer and myself remained alone for a minute or two. He turned to me suddenly and said in Yiddish:
Komm ahier,Yingeleh.- (Come here, youngster.) - I stood rooted to the spot as a wave of goose-pimples tingled all over me. Yiddish! - And from a senior Russian officer? I moved over to him and he rested his two hands on me looking at me with soft eyes.
Tell me, are there many Jews left? he asked.
We're four, and I know of three others who remained alive, I said. He looked at me and nodded his head and I wanted to continue to talk to him, with this Jewish officer, but his mood suddenly seemed to change and he disengaged himself from me, his look returning to its earlier frozen state. Our conversation had ended.
The officer left the house. The doctor continued to treat a few lightly-wounded men and when the room emptied and a soldier had collected all the equipment and taken it out, the doctor, who had remained seated at the table, called me and asked me to tell her what had happened to me. I didn't know where to begin, neither did I know what it was she wanted to hear and when she saw that I had difficulty in starting, she asked me gently to tell her about myself and my family.
I began, hesitantly, to tell her about my family before the war. Slowly the trickle of words became a torrential outpouring and I felt an urge to tell this woman everything that had happened to me during five years of war. She sat opposite me, not taking her eyes off me for a moment, absorbing every word without stopping me or interrupting me, although the expression on her face changed from a beaming smile to a pale grey. Her eyes filled with tears and, in spite of her attempts to control herself, she soon broke out crying.
I became silent and stared at her. I didn't understand why she, a Russian officer and doctor, was crying. She wiped her tears and said: I, too, am Jewish!
She hugged me and kissed me, held me by the hand and asked me to go with her. While we were walking, she told me that she lived in the city of Esterkhan, on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Her husband was a successful engineer and an integral part of the factory where he worked, which was why he was not serving in the army. We arrived at the Command Post. She introduced me to all her colleagues and they all stared at me as if I was a strange exhibit, until I felt uncomfortable. She took me to the field kitchen, introduced me and told them to give me plenty of food. We both sat down to eat, but she put nothing in her mouth, just sat there looking at me and whispering: Eat, my son, eat!
I wasn't hungry, but I couldn't refuse her and forced some food down me, until I thought she would be satisfied. Afterwards, she said:
Now I have to arrange that they send you by special military order, straight to Esterkhan - to my house. You're not to stay here, on this damned ground, not for one single day more.
I tried to tell her that it wasn't my intention to go anywhere, that I was here with my three other friends, and that together with them I had passed through hell and I wasn't going to leave them; that I must, first of all, look for somebody from my family, who perhaps managed to remain alive. But she replied that we'd discuss everything when we meet again, at ten in the evening, after she's finished all the arrangements.
When I got back to the farmhouse, I found that Semen had also returned. It was like coming back to reality from a dream, and I was pleased to see him. He told me that he had to report to the Command Post in Chelm, where he would be reenlisted, but before leaving, he wanted to see Jurziek and Mannik again. The two brothers hadn't yet returned, and in the meantime I told him about my meeting with the Jewish officer and doctor, and that she wanted to send me to Esterkhan.
Semen laughed his well-known cynical laugh: Look how quickly you've found new parents, he said, and added: Go! It'll be good for you there.
At ten o'clock that evening, I met the doctor. She was very disturbed. In the light of the moon, I could see that she was very sad and was on the verge of tears.
You know, she said, We've also got anti-Semites among us. Our Brigade Commander, who's a good man, isn't here now. He's already advanced with the front-line troops. He's at the front. He would arrange your transport with no trouble at all. I went to his second-in-command, but he said that it's not an urgent military matter and there's no need to arrange a special evacuation for you. I begged him but he wouldn't listen. Tomorrow, before dawn, we're leaving here and I don't know what to do.
She was so unhappy that I took pity on her - although not for the moment did I think of going to Esterkhan. When I told her that in any event I wouldn't have gone there, she asked why. I explained that I had to look for and ascertain the fate of all my family; if anyone was still alive, and apart from that, although I didn't know exactly why, I couldn't leave here and break off my association with everything; I need time, I need to clarify to myself where I was, who I was - and I wasn't leaving my friends.
The doctor tried to persuade me to accept her suggestion and said:
Look, Bolek, I'm a doctor and my husband an important engineer. The war is about to finish and I'm going home. In Esterkhan, we've got a lovely house. We have everything we want. But we haven't got any children. You, Bolek, remained alive by a miracle and went through a terrible hell, and you're still young. You're still a child. With us, you can have whatever you want: you can study. We'll help you to catch up on the lost years that you've missed. You'll grow up and be an important man. And from my home we can look for your family together.
I remained quiet. After a few minutes' silence, she asked me to continue telling her about my past. I did as she asked. I talked non-stop for a couple of hours. I didn't miss out a single period, as if I was obsessed with the need to tell everyhting, and she sat opposite me, not saying a word, occasionally wiping a tear from her eyes.
A heavy darkness descended foretelling the coming of dawn. I finished my story. Silence reigned. The doctor took out of her pocket a piece of paper on which she had written the address and telephone number and those of her sister, in Esterkhan. Putting it in my hand, she said:
I must advance to the front, but the war will end soon, and I'll return home. You, Bolek, go to Esterkhan. Our house is yours, you will be our son.
We both knew that I wouldn't be going there and that after our parting we wouldn't see each other again. She gave me a parcel in which were a white shirt, a towel and a bar of soap, apologising that she had nothing else to add to it. From the village came the crowing of cockerels. On the horizon, a streak of paler sky, strengthening by the moment, appeared. We stood, she and I, facing one another, not knowing how to part. Suddenly, we both came together, hugging each other with all our strength. She covered my whole face and head with kisses and I hers.
On the first day of my freedom and liberty I had been swamped with love.
I returned to Karpyuck's barn my head spinning. I lay down near Semen, in the fresh aromatic straw and tried to think about the day which I had just passed, but I fell asleep immediately. Semen woke me, angry with Jurziek and Mannik, that they had not yet returned and that they were delaying his own departure.
I'm scared, he said, that the war will end and I won't manage to take part in the end of it. I want to get to Berlin. I haven't got the patience to wait for them any longer. I'm going to Chelm. You wait her, and I'll wait for the three of you in Chelm.
Semen went and I fell asleep again. I woke up again around noon. Still Jurziek and Mannik hadn't returned. Only an old woman was in the house - all the Karpyuck family was at work in the fields. I felt alone and somehow abandoned. What had happened only yesterday, now seemed long ago. I, too, didn't really have the patience to sit and wait, doing nothing, until the brothers returned. I was also a little worried about them, although I knew there was no cause for alarm, since the Germans were no longer here. I went out to wander around and maybe I thought to walk in the direction from which my two friends would come, in the hope of meeting them on the way, as I used to go out to meet my father when he was due back home from some journey or other. I strode forward in complete freedom, looking at the lovely scenery, while inside was a certain emptiness and restlessness. Until now, I had had something to hope for, to look forward to. I'd had a clear target - a destination to arrive at. Now I had arrived there, I didn't know what to expect further, what I was supposed to do, hope for, or work towards. A picture of the Russian-Jewish officer and the few words he had asked in Yiddish: Are there many Jews left? returned to haunt me and the image of the doctor didn't leave me for an instant, either. My lips still felt the silky touch of her smooth, cool cheeks and in my nostrils the perfume of her soap.
Suddenly I heard the sound of wagon-wheels grinding along the road, together with the clip-clopping of horses' hooves. A military convoy was moving towards me. I could tell from the style of their forage caps that they were Poles. At their head rode a Polish officer and behind him a cavalry man bearing the red-and-white Polish flag.
I stood at the side of the road. The officer acknowledged me in Polish and asked how I was and I waved with my hands in answer to the greetings - I was the only one at that place, to receive the returning Polish army onto its homeland. Suddenly someone jumped from his horse, approached me and asked if I was Jewish, saying that he thought, immediately on seeing me, that I was. When I said I was he shouted:
A Jew! and, as one, the convoy stopped dead in its tracks, soldiers jumped down off their wagons and horses, running towards me and surrounding me, everyone talking at once, some in Polish, some in Yiddish, asking what had happened to the Jews in their villages, perhaps I had come across their families? How did I manage to survive? Did anyone else survive?
The excitement which had been created reached forward to the officer who was riding at the head of the column and he came back to ask what was going on. He ordered his troops to remount immediately and get the convoy moving again. A Jewish officer managed, in the meantime, to tell me that they were camping in the nearby village that night and that I should come there in the evening. The Jewish soldiers in the unit also asked me to come and visit. I was moved at meeting so many Jews and wondered if, perhaps, the whole Polish army was manned with Jews. I waited impatiently for the evening. Again my feelings of loneliness were dissipated
As evening approached, I washed and put on the white shirt that the doctor had given me, and the smell of the soap and a general feeling of cleanliness enveloped me. A few soldiers were waiting for me at the entrance to their camping ground and led me to the centre where again I was surrounded by a throng, all of them asking questions about their relatives, their towns and villages, where I was from and how had I managed to survive. The time came for dinner. A Jewish officer brought me a bowl of food and sat down to eat with me. Someone cleared the soldiers away so that they wouldn't interfere while I was eating, but they kept coming, nevertheless, and brought me more and more to eat. At night, several hundred Jews got together. They sat in a semi-circle and the officer, who had organized the gathering said:
The lad, Bolek, who, by a miracle has remained alive, will tell us what he has seen.
Silence fell. I didn't know what to tell, where to begin. Only last night, for a whole night, I had told my story to the doctor - and now I didn't know what to say. Eventually, I began to tell them abut the Warsaw ghetto, but I sensed that I wasn't succeeding in explaining myself well, so I went on to Sobibor. I described how hundreds of thousands of Jews were exterminated there by the efficient killing machine created by the Germans; I told about the different transports that had arrived at Sobibor from all over Europe. Every time I paused for a moment, I could sense the tension in the crowd, I could see the pain on the faces of my listeners, their eyes moist with tears. I continued to jump from incident to incident, from point to point, without any special order. I felt the urge to tell everything and when I came to the rebellion and escape, I heard a rustle of relief in the crowd and I could discern sparks of excitement and satisfaction in their eyes. Then I began to tell them what happened after the escape, and when I had finished there was complete silence for a few minutes. Nobody asked a thing. Only when we stood up to disperse did the soldiers again gather round me and begin to ask questions; whether by chance I something of this one or the other? Everyone came and shook me by the hand and hugged me. Two officers accompanied me to Karpyuck's house. Before parting, they gave me a pair of trousers and a new shirt, and asked me not to wear them before they left the area.
Jurziek and Mannik returned full of energy and plans for the future. They had been in Chelm, met there fifteen Jews who had remained alive in the local jail and had received a large house, in which had been the German Kommandatur. Jurziek had brought his uncles thence. Mannik had decided to volunteer for the Polish army and help to build a new socialist régime in Poland. Jurziek tried to dissuade him from enlisting, claiming that after all we had survived it was foolishness to willingly go and look for further dangers, Mannik was determined to enlist in the army. Jurziek had already managed to do a bit of business. He bought clothes from the Russian soldiers, paying them with vodka, and sold the clothes to Poles. He bought lighter-flints, which were unavailable, cheaply, and sold them at ten-times the price. His pockets jingled with money and he bought presents for the Karpyuck family and for Janka and Jula.
The following day, early in the morning, we parted from the Karpyuck family and went to Janka's and Jula's house. The excitement at our meeting was intense, as if we hadn't seen each other for years. The two women cried and laughed in turns, while Jula said that they were both sure that we would never see each other again. Jurziek told them that we were going to Chelm and that once we were organized, we'd bring them there. His words didn't make Janka very happy. She said:
I always knew, that when the war finished, Jurziek would leave me. He'll go now looking for a Jewish woman and marry her. I've only got one favour to ask. Let me be your home-help. I won't interfere with either of you. I'll serve you and your wife....
Jurziek again promised Janka and Jula, that as soon as we were settled, both Janka and Jula would join us and we would really live it up... Semen and I assured them it was so, although in our hearts we were saying to ourselves that we were parting from them never to see them again. The parting was hard; both of them cried bitterly.
Although I knew Jurziek, Mannik, Szaje the gardener and a few other residents of Chelm, very well, - all of them were cultured and some of them intelligent and sharp as a razor - Chelm, because of so many legends told about it and its residents, was stuck in my consciousness since childhood, as being a small far-away village, populated by people who were somewhat simple minded and timid. Now I was eager to see the city of these folk-tales with my own eyes and decide on the evidence the truth of the doings that I had heard of 'The Wise Men of Chelm'.
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